Exclusive Interview with Daniel Handler

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This past week, Dr. Simone Muench’s Fun with Fiction students had the unique opportunity of virtually interviewing author Daniel Handler. Daniel Handler is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, AdverbsThe Basic Eight, and Watch Your Mouth. You may also know Daniel Handler by another name. His pseudonym, and the name under which he penned the Series of Unfortunate Events books, is Lemony Snicket.

Here, we reprint the interview in its entirety for readers of the Jet Fuel Review blog to read and enjoy. Questions in this interview were provided from students Angela Lewandowski, Michael Malan, Andrea Grundon, Tonya Peterson, Mary Egan, Summer Hallaj, Joe Kurpiel, Leander Haynes, Whitney Brough, Andrew Rock, Alicia McKendry, Jazmine Williams, Summer Ferrara. Please enjoy.

Interview Questions for Daniel Handler from Topics in Writing: Fiction Class, Fall 2010

1) With all the hats that you wear (author, musician, magazine contributor), why do you consider it important to help promote the careers of your fellow writers by writing book reviews, conducting interviews, etc.?

I enjoy participating in literature, not just by reading it and creating it but by talking about it and writing about it and meeting other people who make it and arguing about it in bars. I write book reviews because I like doing it, and because when I read misguided criticism it strikes me as a problem that I could help fix. I hope it promotes good books and good writers but only in the sense that I hope recycling cans helps the oceans.

2)In your work, your characters are realistic, but have strange characteristics and mannerisms that are well emphasized. What, or who, inspires you to write characters like these and how are you able to develop their strangeness so finely? For example, “Frigidly” is part of a longer work; however, it works wonderfully as a stand-alone story.  What methods did you use in order to develop such strong characters in such a short piece?

I’ve always thought character is bunk.  I think good fiction comes from good story and good tone, and with “Frigidly” I tried to come up with a good plot and a tone that might create circumstances that are interesting and thus feel “real,” even though the story is of course not a realistic one.  I like dialog and try to write dialog that reflects the accidental stylization that I hear every day when people talk – recently, someone was talking about a rich man, and said that he lived “in a house as big as a house” – and I try to move the story in such a way that it feels like life and yet also more interesting than life.  In “Frigidly,” I was working from times when I was in a public space where clearly something was going on that was none of my business.  In imagining this story I hope I infused the characters with the illusion of living and breathing, but I don’t start with character and I look upon writers who start with character with deep suspicion.

3)In “Frigidly” you make use of metafiction. What advantages, if any, do you find in the use of meta-fiction and addressing the audience directly vs. traditional story telling methods? What are the pitfalls of metafiction and how do you avoid them?

Narrators talking directly to their audiences can be found in the earliest known scraps of literature, so what many people call “metafiction” is quite literally the oldest trick in the book.  The advantage is that it’s startling, and the pitfall is that a little of it goes a long way, so if you don’t do it too often you get to have the advantages without the pitfalls.  My two favorite examples, which I offer to those interested in studying the trick in order to practice it smoothly, are the first-person-plural narration that opens Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and the Q&A chapter that closes William Maxwell’s The Chateau. Both those passages are startling because they come out of and/or disappear into thin air.

4)What kind of writing exercises do you practice or what sources do you use for inspiration for your stories? What piece of your work stands out to you as being one of your most influential and why?

When I was starting out I did lots of writing exercises but they’ve now become integrated into my schizophrenic technique.  If I’m stuck on a paragraph, for instance, I put it where I can’t see it and start over.  If I’m stuck on a chapter I might take the last paragraph of what I’ve written and force myself to make it the first paragraph.  If I’m stuck on a sentence I write version after version of it all the way down a page.  I used to do all of these things as abstract exercises but now they’re just part of the writing day.  The effect is a bit like looking for your keys, and then stopping for a minute and deciding to retrace your steps.  You probably won’t find your keys while retracting your steps, but you might suddenly remember where you left them.

I’m not sure what the question means about which piece of my own work is influential.  I think it’s far too early and far too vain for me to think about what influence I’ve had.

5)I’ve read that you consider C.S. Lewis to be an influence. What other authors or writers do you consider to influence your writing style and why?

I don’t consider C.S. Lewis to be an influence and don’t remember saying so, but my influences tend to wax and wane.  When I was writing The Basic Eight I wanted to be Vladimir Nabokov.  When I was writing Watch Your Mouth I wanted to be Haruki Murakami and Denis Johnson.  When I was writing A Series Of Unfortunate Events I wanted to be – of course – Baudelaire, along with Roald Dahl and P.G.Wodehouse and Edward Gorey and assorted Gothic authors of all stripes.  When I was writing Adverbs I wanted to be Ellen Gilchrist, Mary Robison, Joy Williams and Tom Drury.  I recently went back to Nabokov for awhile, along with Chelsea Minnis, Raymond Chandler, Julien Gracq, Charles Simic and Javiar Marias.  And all along I want to be William Maxwell.

6) With background in opera, and with Watch Your Mouth being structured as an opera, do you ever plan to go back to the operatic style of writing? Do you miss performing opera?

I don’t miss performing opera but I continue to find it narratively fascinating and I’m sure the operas I see seep into my work.  With Watch Your Mouth what I loved was structure.  I continue to love it.  When I find a book I admire I love to outline it.

7)As a writer, you are constantly coming up with new story ideas and characters. How do you organize your thoughts and how do you decide which ideas are worth developing? How did you learn to develop your technique as a writer?

I have the profound luck of making a living at writing, so I have plenty of contemplative time to let ideas simmer until it seems like it’s time to work on them.  I take a lot of notes and I put them in drawers.

8)Having had great success as both Daniel Handler and Lemony Snicket, which do you prefer? Do you feel as though one is more successful than the other? What challenges do you face when writing as two different people, and how are you able to jump between writing as yourself and Lemony Snicket so effectively?

I’m a person, and Lemony Snicket is a narrator, so it’s not difficult for me to discern one from the other.  I never work on more than one book at the same time, so the transition from writing a Snicket book to writing another book, while it may seem zippy due to the publication schedule, is actually a slow and relaxing one.

Obviously the Snicket books – to put it extremely mildly – are more commercially successful than my other work.  As far as other yardsticks of success – artistic, personal – every last one of my books falls equally and powerfully short of the vision in my head.  But such is the writing life.  I hope I never catch myself patting my own back very hard.

9)Where did you get the idea to write the Series of Unfortunate Events under a pseudonym, and what do you think you were able to achieve writing under an assumed name?

I wanted the boundaries of the book to be a little blurry – that people reading it would find that the mysteries of the Baudelaire orphans continued on the dust jacket, the author bio, the copyright page, everywhere.  Publishing the book under the name of the narrator helped this along.

10) You write for a wide range of ages. What are the similarities and differences in writing for these groups and what are the challenges of doing this?

To me, children’s literature is a genre, and as with most genres, there are a few, bendable rules.  A mystery novel, for instance, doesn’t necessarily need to contain a crime, and it doesn’t necessarily need to contain a detective, but if it had neither crime nor detective it probably wouldn’t be a mystery novel.  A children’s book has a few similar signposts, but that’s really the only difference between writing for children and writing for adults.

There is a crucial difference, however, between child readers and adult readers, which is that adult readers generally give you the benefit of the doubt.  If you read five pages of Gunter Grass and find it boring, you might continue, because he’s won the Nobel Prize.  If a child is bored five pages in, she’ll likely give up.

11)You have made it clear in previous interviews that you detest those books that are spun in the fantastic fantasy worlds with happy beginnings and happily ever-afters. In fact, in your books you as Lemony Snicket you wrote: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy.” Are children too young to know these truths about life? Do you feel like you are jading child readers with your stories, or are you being honest to them when so many other adults are shielding them with unrealistic expectations of the world that lies beyond their imagination? Does it bother you that some schools ban your Lemony Snicket books and why do you think some of these “authority” figures of schools censor the children from your literature?

Children learn that the unfair world generally refuses to conform to expectation almost immediately upon leaving the womb, when they are generally crying.  By the time they are old enough to read – or be read to – they have long learned of the world’s injustices, both big and small.  I would not presume to think that my books or the books of anyone else teach these truths.  What they do is acknowledge and explore them, and there is the type of reader who prefers such truths acknowledged and explored rather than cheerfully swept under the rug.

It never pleases me to learn that a book has been removed from a shelf for any other purpose other than reading it, but I am reluctant to call the actions of an occasional cranky school board “censorship.”  Any adult caring for a child acts as a censor in one way or another, and these cranks are trying, wrongly but valiantly, to raise their children in the environment they prefer.  A Snicket-free childhood does not seem like too much of a hardship.

12)My daughter has read your books as a class book club talk (she is in 4th grade). When I found out that we would be able to talk to you I grabbed The Reptile Room and started to read it myself. It wasn’t long before my daughter and I were both reading your story aloud. The readings of the story brought my 7th grade son to the couch to listen. Was this one of the goals in writing your Lemony Snicket books; that your stories can transcend the generational gaps of parents and children and also be appreciated by any gender?

Any children’s book worth its salt can and should be read by anyone.  As my goal was certainly to write books worth their salt, I suppose my goal was towards transcending gaps in generation, gender and whatever other categories we might dream up.
13)Knowing that many stories that go to film miss a lot of pertinent information, how do you feel about A Series of Unfortunate Events having been turned into a film? How do you feel about the portrayal of your characters, especially Lemony Snicket in the film adaptation? Were you able to collaborate with the director during the filming of the movie and make your own contributions to the film or changes? Would you consider producing another Lemony Snicket movie, if so what changes would you make from your previous experience with the first movie?

I wrote nine drafts of the screenplay for the Snicket movie, over the course of five years, and then I was fired.  As you might imagine, such a situation leads to all sorts of feelings.  It is easier to describe the feelings of my wife, who was delighted that her husband was, sort of, portrayed by Jude Law.
14)You finished A Series of Unfortunate Events and have returned to writing under your own name, are there any plans to write more as Lemony Snicket or has that alter ego been retired? What can we expect from your four-part children’s series that will be released in 2012?

The new series is a Snicket series, but I don’t like to discuss my work while it’s still in utero.
15)Having many publishing contracts with HarperCollins, how do you work with a deadline in mind?

11/16/10I enjoy writing and have nothing else to do, so I end up working pretty quickly.  Deadlines don’t scare me.  (My publishing contracts are now with Little Brown, by the way.)
16)Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Read and reread good books and take notes.  Write when you can, even when you don’t want to.  Be good to your friends so they will be supportive of you even when they don’t really understand what it is that you are doing.

Thank you, Daniel Handler, for agreeing to participate in our class interview!

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